14 December 2023

Collateral damage, part five: "We as a people" and Advent 2023

Triptych photos: Bob Henry  
Graphic: Bryce Haymond  #gaza  

"Identify, Embrace, Welcome" (mixed media) by Bob Henry graced the front of Indianapolis First Friends Meetinghouse on Christmas Eve 2022. It is what is traditionally known as a triptych. Made of three pieces or panels, it is often used to impart narrative, create sequence, or show different elements of the same subject matter. The three panels highlight how in the Christmas story Jesus’ family identifies with the poor, homeless, and refugee. If you look closely, you will notice that the framework for the three panels is made of refuse, everything from plastic bags to toilet paper rolls—once again making the ordinary into something holy.

(Many thanks to Bob Henry, First Friends' pastor, for the photos and explanation.)

It's hard for me to look at Bob's triptych without thinking about the state of today's world. How is the Body of Christ suffering with those who suffer—whatever their faith—and how are we responding in concert with everyone else who responds—whatever their faith?

Part of that response is providing the resources needed for practical relief and healing. Just about everyone I know is doing that, directly or indirectly. Part of that response is challenging the systems that allow avoidable suffering, misery, desolation, and death to happen. That's where we need to grow. It's not an either/or choice; we need both.

But for so many, our aid and our challenge is already too late.

Nearly 18,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip since October 7, of whom about 13,000 are women and children. According to the local ministry of education, as of December 5, more than 3,477 students and 203 educational staff in the Gaza Strip had been killed. Around 85% of the Gaza Strip's population are "internally displaced," some of them several times.

I've dealt with Israeli official justifications for this sort of atrocity a number of times over the years, and others have done so, too, so I won't repeat all that here. If you believe that, as long as a bullet is targeted at a terrorist, it doesn't matter that its path goes through innocent people, you're probably not reading this. If you believe that having terrorists hiding among innocent people deprives those people of the right to live and to be protected by the occupying force, as international law requires, nothing I can say is likely to change your mind.

But even if the shooting stopped this very night, from all sides, almost 20,000 (including victims in Israel and the rest of Palestine) have already died in this cycle alone. These people, the vast majority of whom were not soldiers or terrorists, have already paid the ultimate price for the lethal failure of national, regional, and international leadership to agree on a peaceful resolution of this running conflict and its utterly predictable eruptions, either through a genuine two-state solution or a non-discriminatory one-state solution, or some third path.

Yes, there's plenty of passion among activists and ordinary people in favor of peace with justice, but we have not found a decisive way to make it plain to decisionmakers that we have seen the cost of their inaction and obstruction, and they have lost their moral authority. I wonder if this most recent wave of mass violence in the face of the whole world is finally breaking through.

That breakthrough might bring some comfort to those grieving for those 20,000 and counting. I take comfort from Martin Luther King, who referred to the Book of Deuteronomy in a speech on the evening before his assassination: "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land." (My italics.)

"We as a people..." is all in fact we're promised, not individual safety. The Bible is brutally direct about that, from the drowning of earth's population in Noah's time; to Pharaoh's soldiers, just following orders; to Ezekiel's shock and awe; to Rachel, weeping for her children, and on, and on. Jesus refers to a news item in his own time: "... those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no...." [Context.] Counting ourselves among Jesus's followers isn't insurance either: "... The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God." (From John 16:2.)

Now we await the birthday of the Prince of Peace. As Simeon told his mother Mary about her newborn baby, Jesus will "be a sign that will be spoken against, ... and a sword will pierce your own soul too." [Context.] For us in the Body of Christ, there may be no better way for us to understand God's intention for us "as a people" in the face of avoidable suffering than to realize that God's own son was not exempt. Jesus became the collateral political damage of Roman dominion ("We have no king but Caesar!"—John 19:15), but he promised that he will not abandon us. It's not any illusory assurance of my own safety that I cling to, but this very promise.

I don't pretend to know exactly how, regardless of our individual fates in this world of violence and all-too-frequent indifference, "we as a people will get to the Promised Land." In my fantasy life, I see those innocent victims of Holy Land violence pouring through the gates of Heaven, and being welcomed into God's arms. And I envision a world where people in the millions all finally mobilize to block the brutal solutions that, over and over, dismiss innocent lives as collateral damage.

Jesus, thank you for coming to live with us, and for taking on the risks of life and death in a world that keeps clinging to the ways of violence. Help us to see each other as you see us, and to accept no less from those who claim to lead us.

"Killing an Arab": Rico G. Monge's meditation and plea, on Camus, antisemitism, colonialism, dehumanization, and Gospel imperatives. (This is the article that led me to Bryce Haymond's double icon above.)

My point is that any position on Israel-Palestine that is not grounded in a consistent stance will lead one to make grave errors. Standing with all Palestinian liberation groups indiscriminately will lead one to alignment with groups with an explicitly antisemitic ideology (such as Hamas) and/or who explicitly and despicably target civilians. At the same time, a person concerned with the horrors of Hamas’s activities, but who does not remain consistent, likewise can become an unreflective supporter of the atrocities committed to found and maintain the nation-state of Israel. Consistent commitment to justice cannot include support for the Israeli government’s racist laws and policies (more on this in the next section), its military’s indisputable willingness to target civilians (including those hiding for refuge in one of the world’s oldest Orthodox churches), or the audacious and repeated claims (of some of the highest ranking Israeli officials) that there are “no innocents in Gaza”—a vile claim that is not new and has now been repeated for years.

What then should we do? Reject the binary of picking a team and then justifying their crimes. Stand with Christ. Stand with the Gospel. Stand with humanity and the least of these no matter what it costs, including friendships—and more. If this seems too costly, I assure you the alternative is far more devastating.

I'm still collecting responses to my survey: Which term do you prefer, Friends or Quakers?

A rerun that felt right somehow: Ukrainian blues harmonica player Konstantin Kolesnichenko playing Little Walter's "Sad Hours." (Backing track.)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post dear Johan!
Accept our sincere congratulations with the New Year and let's hope our world will change for the better

Johan Maurer said...

Hello! I think about you and your family every day. I wish for you all a fruitful and peaceful 2024.